Photo: Courtsey of Blues
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Watch a traditional Mardi Gras Indian funeral


ith the passing of Donald Harrison Sr. at age 65 in December of 1998, New Orleans lost one of its most respected contributors to the perpetuation of its special culture. Harrison was the Big Chief of four different Mardi Gras Indian collectives during his life, the last one founded in 1988 and called the Guardians of the Flame. Harrisonís mission in all this was to ensure that the traditions of New Orleans music born out of the Mardi Gras Indian rituals prospered.

What made Harrisonís involvement with Mardi Gras Indian culture so extraordinary (he first masked in 1949) was his ability to communicate its merits to others; whether it was a fellow Mardi Gras Indian or students in a lecture hall at Yale University. But one of the most profound recipients of the Big Chiefís knowledge was his own son, Donald Harrison Jr. Although it was not until years later that Harrison Jr. realized how special these traditions, and his fatherís role within them, actually were. "The Big Chiefs are really sovereign in New Orleans," Harrison Jr. said backstage between sets this year at The Jazz Standard, a New York City jazz club. "You canít just do it, for that title to be legitimate. You have to have respect from other people, you have to be able to sing and dance, and most importantly, you have to be able to lead men. All those lessons must be learned."

Harrison Jr. started playing the saxophone, and would eventually go on the become one of the most prominent figures in American jazz. In doing so, he would turn back to the Indian music his father taught him as a youth, and incorporate it into his performing. Then, in 1992, he brought his father into the studio with him to record an album, Indian Blues, that featured Indian chants on top of Harrison Jr.ís saxophone work. The recording, now out of print, has become a hidden treasure in many jazz collections. The mixing of a modern jazz sound with the musicís roots (Harrison calls Indian music "the closest thing I know of to real African chants"), was a groundbreaking idea, and one that worked seamlessly. By looking back to the beginning, Harrison Jr. moved the music forward.

he passing of Harrison Sr. brought one of the cityís largest and most elaborate jazz funerals in recent memory. As Harrisonís casket emerged from the church, more than 10 Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, most of them dressed in feathers, were waiting as they chanted the Indian prayer that is called "My Indian Red." After the casket entered the hearse, the brass band started to play, and with that the party began. Parading for hours through the streets of one of the cityís most historic neighborhoods, the Treme, friends, family and fans, made sure that Harrisonís spirit was sent away in style.